Sunday, June 2, 2013

How practising hospitality looks like today

From the London Catholic Worker Newsletter. Reproduced with permission.

Hosting by Henrietta Cullinan 
People often ask me if they can come and stay sometimes I say yes and sometimes no, mostly no. Four grown up children, always coming and going, late night pre-loading sessions at the weekends and four tiny bedrooms. Up until now our daytime lives have always been communal. The bathing arrangements are not at all private, my husband and I having been born into a generation accustomed to wandering around their own home naked. We still have a communal sock pile, not so long ago we had a communal dressing room and before that we all six lived in one room. I am using the communal nature of our hours, I can only conclude, as an excuse not to have anyone to stay.  
It doesn't seem selfish to be looking after your own children, three meals, shopping, cooking, fetching, carrying, picking, riding through the teenager hood for four times. This month my eldest son got married. It's time for a new approach to home ownership. 
Playing music at New Year, my friend the viola player says, "and what does 2013 hold for you?" I say, "this year is going to be the year of Hospitality." He says, graciously, "I'm sure you're always hospitable." On Twitter I post, "hospitality in my house every single day" and get spammed by internet dating sites. I print out a colour copy of Andrei Rublev's icon, Trinity, Abraham with the three angels under the oak tree at Mare (Genesis 18,vv 1-15) and pin it up in my office. 
Shortly after this the opportunity arrives and KM, a Burmese man waiting for NASS support, moves out of Dorothy Day house and into my third son's empty bedroom. I had discussed the plan with my husband who at first just says "yes if that's what you want." "Should we undergo some discernment and preparation?" I ask. He says, "What is there to discern?" 
This experience has taught me more about marriage and notions of house and home that about offering hospitality. We don't need to be Mr and Mrs tucked up in our own house. Our house is not part of us; it's just concrete, aluminium and glass. Welcoming a guest makes us both nervous and nervous of admitting this to each other but then draws us closer. 
There are of course possible problems. Our gust is almost completely nocturnal and so I immediately start to worry about being woken up and the back door being left open when he goes out to smoke. KM tells me his own father is a very disciplined man who doesn't like any kind of noise. He himself is so quiet he never disturbs us. I discover that privacy is a shared endeavour, a shared sensitivity to each other needs. We settle into a rhythm of conversation every few days, each knowing when the other is likely to be in or out. I quickly develop the sense that our guest wants to be respected and that our son's bedroom is his room for the time being. Paradoxically at the same time I am asked to write a letter saying that KM couldn't stay any longer than two weeks, a date which shifts as bureaucratic delays appear and disappear.  
I am shocked that our living room that I always thought was a shared space seems like a private room to KM, who never comes to watch television with us for more than a few minutes, even Match of the Day. He often uses the kitchen after we've finished even after we've gone to bed. It turns out the 'communal' areas of our home are not that communal.   
My upbringing says hospitality is cooking a shared meal, clean towels, books and flowers in the bedrooms, polity conversation at meal times, but mainly a shared meal. But who is expecting this of me? At first I leave a small pan of rice for KM to eat late at night with dried hot chillies. 
Our guest arrives in winter during the snowy weeks when the temperature is below freezing each night. There is no heating in the bedrooms, and I worry how could it must be for a guest with nocturnal habits. I buy a thermometer for our kitchen, which struggles to stay above 15 degrees, sometimes making it to 18 degrees, warm and cosy for our home. I realise I needn't worry. My husband's grandmother used to say "a jumper is something a child has to wear when its mother feels cold." 
Dorothy Day tells us that every home needs a Christ room. The paradox is that the minute that empty room is filled with a guest it doesn't feel like a Christ room anymore. The Christ room is a promise for the future. It is a first practical step in the realisation of my responsibility to others. 
It makes me sad to realise how selfish we have become. Offering hospitality helps me remember the many, many people who are hovering on the fringes, not able to work, to support themselves, to be with their families. It makes me realise that for some ours is an oppressive society, where the burden of proof lies with the asylum seeker, where ther are different rules for different people. 
It is easy to have a guest but also hard. At first I feel uneasy and guilty. I regret losing my peace of mind. I am aware that my own taboos and customary compulsions were getting in the way. It doesn't come naturally to me, but when I turn away and set off for work, I have a deep gladness that KM is here sharing our house with us. It has led me to dream of inviting more guests, why not two or three, sitting round the table, keeping warm. 

 Thank you so much Henrietta for your example of hospitality. Your story tells me what a disciple of Jesus looks like today. Many blessings to you too, KM, and your family.

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